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Google’s New Play Store Rules Are Breaking an App Sex Workers Use to Keep Safe

Ugly Mugs, a UK-based call screening app that helps workers avoid dangerous clients, is at risk for being shut down.

by Samantha Cole
Feb 20 2019, 4:55pm

Image via Shutterstock

Changes to applications’ call and text permissions by Google could destroy safety apps that sex workers depend on to stay safe.

Last year, Google announced it would change its Developer Program Policies so that apps that aren’t the default service for call logs and SMS data can’t ask for permission to access calls or texts.

The changes were implemented to prevent apps from monitoring call and text data. Now that those changes are finally being implemented, however, they are destroying safety apps that relied on these permissions to work in the process, including ones that keeps at-risk communities like sex workers safe.

Ugly Mugs, an app that allows sex workers in Ireland and the UK to screen for abusive clients, is one app that’s negatively affected by Google’s changes. The app’s developer, Safe IQ, now has until March 9 to disable the app’s call screening functionality—the core feature of the app—according to a January blog post from Google. The company expects that, if it can’t get a compliance exception from Google before then, the app will stop functioning or be removed from the Play store completely.

Ugly Mugs works by cross-referencing incoming calls against a database of numbers reported as dangerous by other users. When a call comes in, the app flags the number with green, yellow, or red color-coding, depending on whether it’s been reported as a dangerous caller.

The reviews on the Google Play app page for Ugly Mugs indicate its importance to sex workers in the UK: “This app is awesome, it has saved my life and me from physical harm,” said one review.

“Last week this app stopped 2 robbers and a rapist from coming to see me,” said another. “After I was robbed at knifepoint other girls were able to avoid a terrifying situation.”

App developers can appeal to Google for an exception to the new changes, and other app developers have done this successfully. Ugly Mugs applied for an exemption, but was unsuccessful.

“Our members are frequently and disproportionately the victims of serious hate crime,” Ugly Mugs’s appeal to Google, shared with me by UglyMugs.ie director Lucy Smyth, reads.“ Many rely on pop up alerts as their main way of being always aware of potential dangers. Removal of this feature would lead to our members feeling far less safe and far more crimes against them.”

Read more: A New Zealand Woman Was Charged for Doxing a Sex Worker Online

Google denied the request, and responded that the Ugly Mugs app “does not qualify for use of the requested permissions” because its caller ID, spam detection, and spam blocking function was “determined to be unnecessary or not aligned with the core functionality” of the app, according to screenshots of the exchange shared with Motherboard.

Smyth said that the ability to screen calls can be essential to some sex workers’ personal safety.

“If an UglyMugs.ie member is called by a number that has been reported as a serious danger, e.g. for armed robbery, they straight away see the red alert come up on their phone, literally as the person is calling them, enabling them to know to not answer or decline the booking request,” Smyth said.

If the call screening feature stops working after March 9, Smyth said, members can still manually search the Ugly Mugs database to see if there is a match for the number that called them.

But sex workers don’t have always have time or the ability to manually check a database for dangerous callers, and users have been using Ugly Mugs’s automatic alerts for five years now.

"Without these alerts we expect it to be much easier for offenders to target sex workers, because we will no longer be able to automatically alert sex workers of potential dangers,” Smyth said.

Ireland, like many countries in the world that criminalize sex work, is incredibly dangerous for sex workers. A County Down man was sentenced to eight years in prison on Friday for binding a sex worker’s neck, wrists and ankles and then raping her, and courts granted a Dublin man bail after he allegedly assaulted, raped, and robbed escorts.

These attacks aren’t unique to to Ireland or the UK, and they happen in the US frequently as well. Following the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act last year, platforms and services that once kept sex workers safe online were shuttered, and, as predicted by sex workers themselves, law enforcement has seen a massive uptick in trafficking and violence against sex workers following FOSTA’s passing.

Read more: Sex Workers Don't Trust Kamala Harris

The official Google Play developer Twitter account tweeted at Ugly Mugs on Tuesday, encouraging it to apply again for another exemption. This, too, was denied Wednesday, Smyth said, but with a suggestion for changes in the app. Smyth said they’re making those changes and will apply again on Wednesday.

“With our first application for an exception, it took months for Google to respond and we then only got a refusal with no real meaning to it,” she said. “Our last refusal came quickly and asking us to make a specific change. It did not say we would be given an exception if we made this change. But we are really hoping, cautiously, that we may get an exception, as at least Google are being more responsive and helpful this week.”

In a January blog post about the policy changes, Google Play director Paul Bankhead wrote that Google employs “global teams [to] carefully review each submission” for exceptions, and that those teams make decisions based on “user benefit of the feature,” “likelihood that an average user would understand why this type of app needs full access.” and “importance of the permission relative to the core functionality of the app.”

“Google has the power to enable sex workers to continue receiving these automatic safety alerts, by giving UglyMugs.ie an exception, as they have various other apps,” Smyth told me. “We are asking them to please do that, to consider the safety of their neighbours... Until sex workers can achieve their full rights in society, including the right to safety, we need Google.”